Thursday, April 7, 2011

Authority versus influence

The always trenchant Worst Prof Ever proposes that too often it's assumed that learning occurs when teachers are seen as authorities. In today's culture, educating, she says, is more about exerting influence than wielding authority. But some persist in thinking that educational settings operate with teachers having perceived authority:

I think one of the biggest problems in the non-educator world is that people are still imagining the classroom as authority-based. They think the students eagerly sit there, respecting the teacher and waiting for tutelage, even as they raise kids who expect to be influenced rather than listening to authority.
Of course educators know otherwise; in fact, one of the examples the webinar instructor used for influence without authority was a person who had a fancy title (Like, say, ‘Professor’, I added mentally) but whose seminar was filled with people who weren’t paying attention (Like, say, texting in class, I thought). But if they’re not paying attention, please note that it’s your fault because you’re failing to exert authentic influence.
As much as I don’t like the idea of consumer-driven education, this was one arena where I had to give in: there was no point in trying to exert authority in an influence-based culture.
Worst Prof then asks "Does education require authority, influence, or something completely different?"

There's obviously a lot to talk about here. (Read the comments over at Worst Prof -- a lot of wisdom there.)  I for one want students to have a certain skepticism about authorities, pedagogical and otherwise. It serves them well academically, especially (though not exclusively) when they study philosophy. But it is possible for anti-authoritarianism to go too far, transmogrifying from a healthy questioning of authority to a knee jerk dismissal of authority. Chris' recent re-posting of the Chronicle piece about student entitlement obviously resonates here, illustrating how the consumerist mentality among students can produce a complete disregard for instructor authority, a disregard that can manifest itself as outright disrespect or hostility.

But as Worst Prof notes, demanding respect from students won't win them over. The classroom isn't boot camp and we're not drill sergeants — and it makes us look faintly ridiculous. Ideally, I'd want students to extend us respect, and have us reciprocate not only with respect, but with good teaching that shows them that extending their respect was a smart choice on their part. We can have authority without being authoritarian.

In my mind, the larger issue here is that the educational process, when it fails, tends to devolve from a partnership into a power struggle. When students don't extend us basic respect, as described in the Chronicle piece, it's hard to resist the urge to angrily retract whatever respect we extended to them, clamping down and re-establishing our authority. Can that work? Sometimes. Maybe. But it merely ratifies the notion that education is a power struggle, instead of transcending it. And we're not much closer to the only possible model for true education: a role-defined partnership.


  1. Nice post Michael
    As you point out, there is a difference between having authority and being authoritarian that needs to be remembered when discussing the relationship between student and teacher. I am the authority in my class to this extent:
    1) I have the knowledge of my subject and the skill to transmit this knowledge effectively to students.
    2) I establish the criteria upon which grading will be determined and reward people accordingly.
    3) I establish and monitor proper classroom behavior - which I define. My key criterion for establishing classroom behavior expectations is being respectful towards each other.

    Whatever actual authority I have in practice is derived from what is referred to in leadership theory as power bases. The five power bases are:
    1.Reward power –ability to influence others behavior by offering something of value
    2.Coercive power – ability to penalize others to influence their behavior
    3.Legitimate power – power that stems for the belief that a person has the right to exert influence
    4.Expert power – derived from a person’s knowledge or the perception that the person has knowledge.
    5. Referent power – ability to influence another based on the perception that goals or objectives are similar.

    I think that the difference between being viewed as an authority (expert) or an authoritarian is based on how fair we are perceived to be by our students. My experience has been that most people want to succeed in what they endeavor to achieve. I assume that most people do not need the behavioral rules, only the steps they must take to succeed in the class; readings, papers, tests, attendance/participation policy, etc. Consequently, in my syllabus, I have 1 sentence on what is expected behaviorally in my classroom and 2 sentences dealing with electronic equipment. I very seldom have disruptive behavior in my classroom because the expectations are clearly stated and reflected in my behavior towards my students. I do have students who will drop the course, but this is usually because they are not attending or doing poorly in the tests, etc., not because I was acting disrespectfully towards them. I do have 1-2 students a year that will drop because they do not like me - there is a personality issue and they find me objectionable in some way.

  2. I think John states things nicely here.

    Clearly authoritarian environments are not good pedagogical environments. That said, teachers must and should act as authorities. The teacher student relationship is a hierarchical one, and I don't really see much reason to dismiss that fact.

    In a good hierarchical setup, students are respectful and try hard. When that happens, teachers not only do their jobs but they are flexible with students, and so use their power benevolently.

    When this works out right, I think you have a healthy pedagogical relationship. I hesitate to call it a 'partnership' because it then sounds like two equally contracting parties entering into an agreement, and I'm not sure that captures what a good teaching environment is.


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